Plugged Ears in Congress : Business likes AmeriCorps; so why are pro-business lawmakers opposed?

Many Republicans in the congressional class of 1994 have argued that the federal government does a poor job of listening to the business community. Frequently that's the case. Yet, ironically, many of these same lawmakers have turned a deaf ear to corporate executives who are urging them to support one of the nation's most innovative public/private partnerships, AmeriCorps.

The national service program is a nonprofit endeavor that offers young people the opportunity to work in their communities in such fields as education, the environment and law enforcement. In exchange for two-year commitments, AmeriCorps participants receive a $4,725 educational grant and a $7,200 annual stipend to cover living expenses.

The government's funding of AmeriCorps drew the attention of congressional budget hawks, some of whom think the work ought to be done gratis. So they eliminated funding beyond 1996. Now there is some question whether the agency will survive a tough reauthorization fight next year.

It's the responsibility of Congress to look closely at whether government programs are efficient or need revision. But before it moves to eviscerate AmeriCorps, Congress should take note of the participation and support of large corporate donors, including American Express, Anheuser-Busch, General Electric, IBM, Microsoft and Nike. Contributions from these corporations offset a quarter of AmeriCorps' operational costs and about one-sixth of the volunteers' stipends.

Such corporate enthusiasm hardly smacks of the big government that the new legislators came to Washington to dismantle.

AmeriCorps helps fund 350 service programs that are administered primarily on the state and local levels. So one has to wonder: Is it money or politics that has put this worthwhile service program on the chopping block?

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